Dr. Strangelove, or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love My Goals

What do you think of your goals? Are they all thorny stick, no carrot cake? Do your goals tire you more than they inspire you? If so, you’re not alone!

Think of this post as a Dear Abby or Savage Love column for those of you who, like me, are in dysfunctional relationships with your goals.

I’m a dreamer and an idealist with a perfectionist streak. It’s difficult for me to set realistic goals for myself.  And get this: I’m a project manager by trade. I set achievable goals and manage expectations for a living. I play well with others, but really suck when it comes to setting my own personal creative objectives.

Over time, I’ve come up with some ideas that help me manage my goals better:

1. Learn the ABCs of Goal Setting: Ambition, Balance, Compassion.

Pursue your goals with ambition and compassion in balance with each other. Don’t sacrifice ambition for compassion, or compassion for ambition.

Compassion for others is a given, but I’d like to highlight compassion for oneself. I am sadistic, cruel and merciless towards myself in ways that I would never dream of with my friends, family and colleagues.

While training for my first first marathon, I mentally scourged myself for every missed or shortened workout or run at a slower than target pace. After completing that arduous 26 miles, I was disappointed in coming in over my target time, for hitting the wall too soon, for walking too much. I scolded myself for not being more disciplined in my training.

I have a kinder view now. Looking back on that accomplishment, I see that I went from couch potato to training for that race, week after week, at high altitude, in Utah’s summer heat! I’m not a runner, and I ran a fucking marathon! I should be proud of myself, and I am–now. Even if I do think I was kind of insane.

2. Focus on Success.

Turn the focus away from failure by recording your accomplishments and progress. Write down your word count, stories submitted, that red velvet cupcake you resisted, etc. You can do this each day, each week, and/or each month. Also, note successes not directly related to your goals.

Recording my accomplishments keeps me motivated. Because I set my goals so high, it’s often more inspiring to see how far up the mountain I’ve climbed than to measure the remaining distance to the far off summit. This worked especially well during the first half of my latest NaNoWriMo. (“Hey look! I wrote 10,000 words!” vs. “Ohmigawd, 40,000 words left to go!”)

I also find it helpful to track successes not directly related to my explicit goals.  In my list for the past week is a note that I spent an entire Saturday with my daughter, exploring part of Santa Monica. It was a rare (and pleasant) gift to spend that length of time with my busy, driven, socially-active teen, and it put my reduced creative output for the weekend in proper perspective. It was time spent in the best possible way.

3. Prioritize and Review from a Weekly Perspective.

Schedule your shortest term goals and priorities from a weekly perspective, instead of daily. Spend at least half an hour each week recording your successes from the previous week, reviewing (and if necessary, revising) your goals and scheduling your priorities for the coming week.

The late personal productivity guru, Stephen Covey, who said “The key is not to prioritize what’s on your schedule, but to schedule your priorities.” This is easier to do from the perspective of a week than each day. I’m not suggesting that you don’t plan or prioritize each day, but do set your priorities for the week first. I find that if I wait until the morning of, many decisions are already made for me, by the urgency of proximity.

Also, between my day job and family commitments, I routinely have little control over my schedule for at least a day or two each week. But I can look at the entire week and reserve time for my priorities: writing blocs, workouts, etc.

Even a journey of a thousand light years begins with a single small step…

These three approaches have helped me to come to peace with my personal goals. I’m not sure if I’m more or less effective in pursuing my objectives than I was in the past, but I’m definitely happier.

In closing, shoot for the stars, don’t necessarily settle for the moon, but do congratulate yourself for making that far! You’ve escaped the Earth’s gravity well, after all.

And let me know if you have techniques or approaches that have worked well for you!

Disclaimer: my suggestions aren’t intended for every goal-setting scenario, especially where you may have commitments to others, external deadlines, and calendared events. These approaches are mostly about personal goal setting, where you are answerable only to yourself, and where you’ve grown frustrated with the process. As always, YMMV.

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  1. Matthew Smith
    12/10/2012 at 12:49 am Permalink

    Thanks, John. I’m not a perfectionist at all, but I do beat myself up constantly for falling short. This helps. – Matthew Sanborn Smith

  2. John Dewey Nakamura Remy
    12/10/2012 at 4:07 am Permalink

    Matt, I’m sorry to hear that you share my masochistic tendencies, but I’m really glad that this helps. Good luck to you, and I hope you’ll let me know how things go.

  3. Paul Weimer
    12/10/2012 at 7:01 am Permalink

    Thanks, John. Dr. Strangelove reference for the win. I think lots of authors are hard on themselves for not “living up”

  4. John Dewey Nakamura Remy
    15/10/2012 at 9:13 am Permalink

    Thanks–I have a hard time coming up with titles, and I’m glad this one connected! And you’re absolutely right–I think writers and artists can be especially hard on themselves, and our society does little to reinforce the value of creative efforts, especially when they don’t bring in a living wage.

  5. galen dara
    12/10/2012 at 8:42 am Permalink

    this is very timely for me right now, thank you. I do have a strong tendency to kick myself quite a bit for failure (and, unfortunately, it often does spill out to those around me.) Thank you for this wonderful reminder for a bit of balance.

  6. John Dewey Nakamura Remy
    15/10/2012 at 9:11 am Permalink

    You’re welcome. I know that we share some of these beat-ourself-up tendencies. I hope this helps you. *hugs*

  7. Andrew Penn Romine
    12/10/2012 at 9:10 am Permalink

    Love this post, John, thanks! Particularly striking to me is the ABC principle and scheduling for the week. I’ve unconsciously followed those in the past, and I always find myself happier for it. 🙂

  8. John Dewey Nakamura Remy
    15/10/2012 at 9:10 am Permalink

    Thanks, Andy–it’s good to have independent confirmation of principles from someone as dedicated and successful as you!

  9. Tammy Salyer
    12/11/2012 at 9:12 am Permalink

    What a wonderful post. I’ll come back to it weekly to help remember these outstanding tactics. Thanks for sharing!


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